I heard about him all the time. Taking a break from working on our computer programs in the old computer science building on Thayer Street, someone would rattle off one more story about him. Invariably, they involved women and alcohol. We disbelieved them all, but somehow that didn’t matter. Even the ridiculed stories added to the legend.
The man had that kind of mythic stature. Two decades after his father clutched his throat and died in a convertible
in Dallas, the son trailed those famous initials around campus. Many other famous offspring passed through as well—a Ferraro, a Cuomo, a Carter—but none managed his aura. I was always conscious of his presence; then, one day, I saw him.
Before a trip out of town, I stopped for gas at the Shell station on Angell Street. Looking around idly with hose in hand, I saw a man doing the same at his shiny car—years newer than my rusting Dodge Colt. Over the roofs of our cars, our eyes met. It’s him, I told myself, fighting to keep my face placidly blank. Our gaze held just that fraction of a second longer than necessary before, as if on cue, we both looked away, down at the hoses. I finished first, paid, and rattle-trapped out of the station.
My thoughts wandered back to an encounter with an Indian strain of mythic celebrity back home in Delhi during the 1970s. Wearing a loud African shirt and tight Levis, the then-pilot son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi strode up to our doorstep to pick up a woman who’d had an accident outside our home. She had fainted from the shock, and we’d brought her inside to recover. One of the others in the car with her asked to use our phone because, he said, he needed to inform the prime minister.
“The PM?” we asked in wonder. And so the son, Rajiv, arrived with his entourage. After helping the woman into another car, he thanked us politely and was gone.
Years later Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards and Rajiv succeeded her as prime minister. Seven years later, in 1991, and he too was dead, blown to pieces in an obscure southern Indian town. Eight years later, a small plane went down off Martha’s Vineyard.
I don’t often have brushes with celebrity, nor do I particularly crave them. I never knew JFK Jr. at Brown, never knew (nor much respected) Rajiv Gandhi. My views of them have largely been shaped by the cultural machinery that has created and absorbed the myths by which we’ve come to know them. I’ve always been struck by how that mythic stature—the royalty, the endless youth—almost inevitably mutates into tragedy.
Who were these men, the real Rajiv and JFK Jr.? Who knows, really? All we have are the myths, the images, the two Camelots produced by two very different countries. They are myths of political ambition and family dynasty, and in the end they are stories about us. The flesh-and-blood men are almost irrelevant. In their place at the heart of these fables is always a deep and inexplicable sadness.
Twice I have glimpsed this sadness. The first was when I glimpsed the man on an errand at our door in Delhi, and the second came in an exchange over the roofs of two cars at a Shell station in Providence, where two men exchanged a gaze that seemed to last a half a second too long.